Venus Williams is making a charge to qualify for the Olympics and represent the U.S. (Getty Images)
ROME -- It's been a lovely week of pizza and pasta and I'm growing more and more convinced that the Italians just know how to enjoy life like no one else. Before the weekend hits, let's pause to clear out my dirt-stained notebook for a few quick (or not-so-quick) thoughts.
1. Sisters doing it for themselves: The last time Serena and Venus Williams played Rome was in 2010, when Serena was sitting atop the rankings and Venus wasn't that far behind her at No. 4. Two years later, they're continuing on their comeback trail. Serena's results this week at the Italian Open will see her crack the top five, and Venus' victory over Sam Stosur (her second top five win since her comeback) assured she'll be the No. 3 American on Monday and well on her way to accomplishing her goal of qualifying for the London Olympics.
"I wasn't really ready to come back but I had to come back to get into the Olympics and accumulate points," Venus said. "So I probably wouldn't have been able to come back until Wimbledon or after Wimbledon, but I didn't really have a choice."
Venus was visibly emotional one she was told she's close to cracking the top 50, a milestone that would almost surely earn her an Olympics spot. "Seriously?" she asked reporters, clearly surprised by the news. Then she gave herself a number of fist-pumps, and I may have detected a few nascent tears forming.
"I know I'm good at tennis. Other than that, everything else is a wild card," she said. "I'm a wild card."
Venus wasn't kidding. With their press conferences scheduled back-to-back, Venus took the opportunity to crash Serena's and play the role of reporter. "How do you feel about playing doubles at the French Open?" she asked her sister.
"Really? Who would I play with," Serena joked. "My partner's back. It would be awesome. I'm into it."
2. Azarenka making noise about WTA rules: The circumstances surrounding Victoria Azarenka's withdrawal almost immediately after her second-round win have thrust the WTA's rankings rules back into the spotlight. The lights at the Foro Italico hadn't even turned off for the night when news hit that Azarenka pulled out of the tournament because of a shoulder injury. It was a surprising announcement. She had just rolled over Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-2, didn't look hampered at all and was all smiles and giggles after the win, telling the crowd how much she loved Rome. Naturally, the speculation began immediately. Was she really injured, let alone that injured? Was she pulling out just to rest up for Roland Garros?
Azarenka explained her rationale on Friday. "I was conflicted and disappointed to withdraw from Rome," she tweeted. "I tried my hardest but I wasn't healthy going into the tournament." That would have been explanation enough, but Azarenka went on to criticize the WTA rules, which, in her view, don't offer enough protection for players. "If WTA rules were different then I could have focused on getting healthy," she continued, "but I could not afford another zero pointer on my ranking. Hopefully in the future there will be more protection for players rights."
When asked for comment, the WTA released the following statement:
The WTA’s Roadmap -- created and supported by our WTA players and tournaments -- is designed to protect the health of our players and to ensure that fans are able to see their favorite players more often at their favorite events. Key elements of the Roadmap introduced to protect player health include a longer off season, more in season breaks and a significantly reduced commitment requirement for top players. Since it was introduced in 2009, player injuries and withdrawals are down 33% and top player participation at our top events is up 28%. We think the Roadmap is working.
So what was at stake if Azarenka wanted to withdraw from Rome before the start of the tournament to heal her injuries and rest for the French Open? The WTA rules require top 10 players (as designated by their ranking at the beginning of the year) to fulfill certain mandatory commitments: the four Grand Slams, four Premier Mandatory tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing), four Premier 5 tournaments (Doha, Rome, Montreal, Cincinnati or Tokyo), two Premier 700 tournaments of their choosing, and the WTA Championships if they qualify. That's a minimum of 15 events. Your reward for fulfilling your commitments? A piece of the $4.9 million bonus pool at the end of the year that awards as much as $1 million to the year-end No. 1. The penalty for not fulfilling your mandatory commitments? A "zero-pointer," which means that the player's zero points from that missed tournament is included as her 16th-best result for rankings purposes. That player would also forgo eligibility to the bonus pool, though not getting a bonus isn't exactly a "penalty."
Still, skipping Rome wouldn't have put her bonus pool eligibility at risk (she already played Doha and there are three more Premier 5s she can play to meet the requirement), and any late withdrawal fines (minimum of $75,000) could have been mitigated if she showed up to Rome and simply did some sponsor activities and meet-and-greets. So really, the only thing on the line for Azarenka was the prospect of getting "zero-pointed" (she's already carrying two), which wouldn't affect her ranking immediately. Even if she got zero points from Rome, she would still go into the French Open as the top seed. And she's not the only top player who is carrying a zero-point penalty. Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova have two each and Serena has four. It's the cost of doing business if you want to prioritize your health.
Azarenka's decision was understandable, and in a way, commendable. She's made the mistake of playing through injuries in the past and it's hurt her. But there does seem to be a bubbling stream of discontent among the younger players on the tour with respect to the WTA rules. Caroline Wozniacki has complained about being restricted as to which tournaments she could play, and now Azarenka is grumbling about players' rights. The WTA can't be happy to hear its two most recent No. 1s griping about a system that took the tour and players so long to implement, and represents a good-faith attempt to balance the needs of players, the tour and the tournaments. Besides, you don't get the benefit of all the increased prize money the Roadmap has generated without having to make some sacrifices.
Serena, who sits on the WTA player council, has seen the improvements in the schedule and she explained the situation perfectly:
"The WTA has a set of rules that are great for the players and some rules are good for the tournaments and everyone doesn't necessarily agree on everything, which is normal. You somehow gotta make the tournaments happy, you gotta make the players happy, tournaments have to make money. It's a two-way street that we've been working on. We've made some great adjustments for years now. Compared to a few years ago this is a great balance."
You'll hear similar statements, too, from other WTA veterans, who had to play an unfairly onerous schedule before the Roadmap was introduced. Maybe the WTA and its leaders in the locker room should pull this younger generation aside for a chat. They don't know how good they've got it.
3. Isner, Murray sputtering: Rough week for two men who are looking to impose themselves on clay, with Andy Murray trying to back up his solid 2011 showing and John Isner looking to build on his Davis Cup wins over Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on clay earlier this year. Isner survived some scratchy form in his first-round encounter against Philipp Kohlschreiber, winning 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2, only to lose to Andreas Seppi 2-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5. Combined with his opening-match loss to Marin Cilic last week in Madrid, Isner will go into Roland Garros with a 1-2 record on this European clay swing. He was pretty devastated after the loss to Seppi. We'll have to wait and see whether he can get his head into a positive frame by the time the French Open starts.
As for Murray, the Scot (see, he lost so he's not British at the moment) said he's been struggling with a back injury since December but wouldn't go into any further detail after he lost to Richard Gasquet, 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-2 in the third round. Everything was looking rosy for Murray after he made the wise decision to skip Madrid, as he had plenty of time to train and recuperate while the rest of the ATP big guns were sliding on the blue clay. But the gamble didn't pay off. He'll reunite with Ivan Lendl next week as they prepare for the French Open. Does Ivan have magical healing powers for body and brain?
4. The ruckus in Rome: The grounds at the Foro Italico are exactly what a European clay-court tournament is supposed to look and feel like. Ten of the 11 courts here are sunken into the ground, which makes for a very fan-friendly viewing experience, as ticket holders can just stroll around and see some of the action on almost every single outer court. That is, unless there's an Italian playing on Court Pietrangeli, which has been home sweet home for a number of Italian players all week.
Flavia Pennetta, who's slipped out of view ever since becoming the first Italian woman to crack the top 10 in 2009, had an inspiring run to the quarterfinals before retiring to Serena with a wrist injury. But the most remarkable, inspiring, memorable performance has to go to Seppi. He came back from a set down to beat Isner in the third round, and then miraculously rallied from 2-5 down in the third set against Stanislas Wawrinka, saving six match points in a 6-7 (1), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6) victory. As he fell to the ground in celebration, the partisan crowd began chanting his name, singing soccer chants and saluting their countryman with the love and passion that only Italians can. It was a thrilling scene all around and a great reward for Seppi, a quintessential journeyman and one of the nicest guys on tour, and for the Italian fans who have always supported this tournament. You can feel the love.